If you didn't get the "whey protein for PCOS" memo, it's so not your fault. The memo keeps changing. And by memo, we mean science. For people with PCOS, whey protein may have significant benefits, but more research is needed.
How to Tame PCOS With Food
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a challenging hormonal disorder that affects fertility. Eating the right foods has been shown to be an effective way to manage PCOS symptoms, such as obesity and intermittent ovulation, in many people with this condition, according to a November 2019 meta-analysis on diet and PCOS in the International Journal of Endocrinology.
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In fact, the study, which combined the results of eight randomized trials, found significant evidence that lowering carbohydrate intake reduced two markers of PCOS — insulin resistance and androgen levels, including testosterone.
If carbs are what you should limit, what should you eat?
"[Because] people with PCOS generally have underlying dysfunction with the mechanisms of insulin action, it's advisable to follow a low-carb, higher-protein diet," says board-certified reproductive endocrinologist, Rinku Mehta, MD, of Dallas IVF.
"Any form of high-quality protein can be of benefit. Whey protein is a good source of protein for people with busy lifestyles who find it easier to add protein powder to a smoothie than to prepare and eat a high-protein meal."
The Science Behind Whey Protein for PCOS
A small study of 15 people with PCOS, reported in the May 2020 issue of Current Developments in Nutrition, supports Dr. Mehta's opinion. According to researchers, people with PCOS are insulin resistant and have faulty insulin signaling. Whey protein increased insulin sensitivity and reduced blood sugar and insulin resistance at around 40 days in PCOS patients.
"PCOS people have insulin resistance related to elevated cortisol. Whey may be helpful in lowering cortisol levels," says Kecia Gaither, MD, and ob-gyn and the director of Perinatal Services at NYC Health+Hospitals/Lincoln in New York City. "It may also reduce ghrelin — a hormone that increases the sensation of hunger. This ultimately impacts weight by lowering caloric intake. Weight loss can help normalize hormone levels of insulin and androgens, which are out of balance with PCOS."
That all sounds great, but before you run to the store, keep in mind that not every doctor is convinced.
"When it comes to whey protein and PCOS, the jury is still out," says Sara Mucowski, MD, a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist and Dr. Mehta's colleague at Dallas IVF. "There's been a lot of research in recent years trying to determine if there are beneficial effects of whey protein on the altered metabolic factors of women with PCOS. However, in those that do see benefits, supplementation is used for longer than 30 days. At this point, further research is needed to determine if whey protein is beneficial to people with PCOS."
How to Use Whey Protein
If you have PCOS and decide to try whey protein, look for a brand that lists a high percentage of protein on its label. Dr. Mehta advises against using whey protein containing artificial additives or sweeteners, such as sugar or corn syrup.
Whey protein smoothies are one way to increase the amount of whey in your diet. You can add whey protein to any liquid you enjoy drinking, hot or cold. You can also mix it into no-sugar applesauce or Greek yogurt. Because it's a powder, you can add whey protein to any dry ingredients you use in recipes for pancakes, muffins or bread as well.
Based on the latest research, it can take around a month before whey protein has any effect, if it helps at all. During that time and afterwards, make healthy, low-carb eating a way of life.
Looking for a Whey Protein to Try?
Optimum Nutrition's Gold Standard Whey (Amazon.com, $33.74) is our pick for the best whey protein powder.
- Current Developments in Nutrition: “Effect of Whey Protein on Insulin Sensitivity and Glucose Metabolism in Women With and Without Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)”
- Kecia Gaither, MD, double board-certified OB/GYN, maternal fetal medicine; director, Perinatal Services, NYC Health+Hospitals/Lincoln, New York, New York
- International Journal of Endocrinology: “The Effect of Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials”
- Sara Mucowski, MD, board-certified reproductive endocrinologist, Dallas IVF, Dallas and Plano, Texas
- Rinku Mehta, MD, board-certified reproductive endocrinologist, Dallas IVF, Frisco and Plano, Texas
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